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Lipnitskaia puts herself on short list for Sochi

Fifteen-year-old wins first senior Grand Prix title; Gold drops to third
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Julia Lipnitskaia's 'Schindler's List' free skate included seven triple jumps and four Level 4 spins, a performance that lifted her from second after the short to the top step on the podium. The 15-year-old Russian took home her first gold medal in the Grand Prix Series. -Getty Images

Only two Russian women will get to compete in their home country when the Olympic Winter Games come to Sochi in February.

Julia Lipnitskaia made a strong case Saturday that she should be one of them.

Skating to music from the movie Schindler's List, the 15-year-old not only landed six clean triples but also executed tremendous flexibility in her spins and spiral sequences to win her first senior-level Grand Prix event at 2013 Skate Canada. American Gracie Gold, the leader after the short program, fell once and struggled on the landings of several other triples to drop to third overall (186.65).

Lipnitskaia's near-flawless free skate garnered 131.34 points to give her a total of 198.23, 4.48 points more than runner-up Akiko Suzuki of Japan. 

"You are never really thinking about winning because, for me, you always have to move forward," Lipnitskaia said before adding, "But, obviously, I'm really happy."

Later, when asked about the pressure that is on her to compete in the Olympic Games in Russia, Lipnitskaia smiled and said, "First of all, I have to get there."

Lipnitskaia's performance in Saint John certainly put the pressure on an already loaded field of Russian women. Among the other skaters vying for a spot on the Olympic team: reigning Russian champion Elizaveta Tuktamisheva, who placed fourth at Skate America, 2010 Olympian Alena Leonova, 2013 European silver medalist Adelina Sotnikova and 2013 world junior bronze medalist Anna Pogorilaya. (Elena Radionova, the 14-year-old bronze medalist at last week's Skate America, is not age eligible to compete at the Olympics.)

A lot that can happen between now and Sochi. First, Lipnitskaia has another Grand Prix event on her schedule, the Rostelecom Cup, set for Nov. 22-24 in Moscow. Then come Russian nationals, which will be held around Christmas in Sochi, and then the European championships in January.

But if today was a glimpse into what might be, the future is bright for this Russian teen. Lipnitskaia, who began skating after her mother took her to an ice rink when she was 4, seemed in control of her program from the moment her music started playing. Wearing a red dress with black trim, Lipnitskaia displayed both grace and strength that exceeded what one might expect from a person of her small stature.

In addition to being able to land the triple jumps (her lone flaw came on the edge of her opening triple Lutz-triple toe combination), she showed a softer side with Ina Bauers, exquisite spirals and a closing change foot combination spin with her leg pulled high above her head.

Her performance drew a standing ovation from the crowd, and when her marks were announced, she covered her mouth with her hand in surprise.

Suzuki, who placed eighth at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, did not perform as strong a program as she would have liked, stumbling out of the landing on her opening triple flip and turning a couple of triples into doubles. Her second-place finish here marked her third consecutive silver medal at Skate Canada.

"I feel like I'm becoming a silver-medal collector at Skate Canada," she said with a laugh.

At 28, Suzuki was the veteran competitor in the field, and she knew how to strategize. Instead of worrying about the difficult elements that her younger competitors had -- unlike Lipnitskaia and Gold, Suzuki did not plan a triple-triple in her free skate -- she focused solely on what she could do.

As for Gold, she did not achieve her goal of winning a Grand Prix title, but she certainly showed improvement over her finish at Skate Canada a year ago, when she placed seventh. Skating in her first competition with Frank Carroll as her coach, Gold started her routine to Sleeping Beauty fairly well, landing her triple Lutz-triple toe, a double Axel and a triple loop.

But she began to struggle midway through the program, hanging on to the landing a triple flip, falling on a triple Lutz and slipping out of the landing on her triple Salchow. Because of the errors, she added two double toes to the end of her closing double Axel to get extra points, but it wasn't enough to keep on top of the standings.

"I felt good actually, really good," Gold said. "Mentally, I just let my mind slip a little bit."

Final result aside, Gold still smiled afterward. She even took a few soft bags out of her suitcase and started juggling for reporters in the press room after someone asked about her juggling skills.

"I'm looking forward to putting out a better performance at NHK and at nationals," Gold said. "But a bronze medal at a Grand Prix is something I will always take."

American Christina Gao experienced uncharacteristic problems with her triple flip in her free skate, landing her opening one too wobbly to pull off her planned triple-triple and then doubling her second planned triple flip. She finished fifth in the free skate and fourth overall.

"I had some mistakes here and there -- well, just on the flips really -- but overall in the long program, I didn't really hold back," Gao said.

One thing that could have unnerved Gao but didn't was the fact that Kaetlyn Osmond was a late scratch from the free skate. Osmond, the Canadian champion and 2012 Skate Canada gold medalist, withdrew just moments before the ladies free skate, citing a right hamstring injury. Osmond had been recovering from an unrelated problem with her left foot leading up to this competition.

Osmond, who placed fifth in the short program, had been slated to be the first skater to perform her free skate after the second warm-up period. With Osmond out, it was Gao who had to skate first in the last group of women, a position many skaters find daunting. Gao said she had a feeling Osmond might withdraw earlier in the day because Osmond had left the morning practice session early.

But it was her coach, Mark Mitchell, who gave her the official word.

"At first I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I have to skate first after the warm-up," Gao said. "But then I just let that thought go right through my head."

The third American in the field was Courtney Hicks, and she had a dramatic recovery following her ninth-place showing in the short program. In the free skate, performing to music from Evita, Hicks rebounded with a triple flip-triple toe. She was strong throughout, minus a fall on the back end of a triple Lutz-double toe-double loop, and placed fourth in the free and sixth overall.

"I am much happier with that program," Hicks said. "It was more free."

What pleased coach Jere Michael most about the performance was that Hicks had struggled with the triple-triple in the warm-up, but Hicks didn't let the problems bother her when it was time to compete. In the warm-up, she fell once on the combination and doubled it another time.

"I am really proud of her for that," said Michael, who coaches Hicks along with Alex Chang at Paramount Iceland in Southern California.

With Osmond out, the top Canadian finisher was Amélie Lacoste, who placed fifth.

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